In "Fleshmarket Alley," by Ian Rankin, Detective Inspector John Rebus and Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke join forces to find the killer of a recent immigrant, the whereabouts of a missing young woman, and the origin of two skeletons found under a cement floor. Does Scotland bring to mind kilts, bagpipes, and bonnie lassies? Well, think again. According to Rankin, Glasgow is one of the murder capitals of the world. "Fleshmarket Alley" is filled with gangsters, racists, sexual predators, and more than a few common criminals.
John Rebus is close to being put out to pasture. Since his bosses have no use for him, he finds himself in Knoxland, a run-down, fetid, and crime-ridden housing development in Edinburgh. Knoxland has become a dumping ground for desperate refugees seeking asylum in Scotland; it is now a crime scene where an unidentified man was brutally stabbed to death. Meanwhile, a desperate couple has enlisted Siobhan to find their eighteen-year-old daughter, Ishbel, who packed a bag a week earlier and disappeared without a word.
Rebus is an inspector of the old school. He has a wide range of contacts, both legitimate and shady, whom he calls upon for inside information. It is amazing that Rebus can take a breath or stand up, since he seems to smoke and drink constantly. However, he is as sharp as ever, and what he lacks in youth, he makes up for in instinct, experience, and dogged persistence.
"Fleshmarket Alley" is a frank and disturbing look at the seamier side of Scotland. Rankin's characters range from racists who want all immigrants to go back "where they came from" to greedy opportunists who enrich themselves at the refugees' expense. As Rebus and Clarke work on their cases, they interview potential eyewitnesses as well as wealthy flesh peddlers and street thugs. However, the two detectives both find that their investigations are too complex to yield quick and simple solutions.
Rankin's dialogue in this novel is hard-edged and laced with dark humor; his plotting is intricate and involving. He skillfully and compassionately explores the problems of immigrants who seek refuge in a country where they are unwanted. As always, Rankin writes credibly about the politics, tedium, and often frustrating futility of police work. Rebus makes for a terrific anti-hero, and Siobhan Clarke is an excellent foil for him. "Fleshmarket Alley" is uncompromising and sometimes unpleasant to read, but it paints a realistic picture of the criminal activity that accompanies the troubling social problems plaguing Scotland today.